Monday, May 11, 2015


Every time the conversation turns to ninja movies I have to remind people of the moment in You Only Live Twice when Tiger Tanaka introduces James Bond to his modern ninjas. On a firing range we see these ninjas firing machine guns, throwing hand grenades, and so on. Pretty cool. The film is from 1967, and cinematic ninja have grown only less modern since then. What the hell? Well, what happened, obviously, was the rise of martial-arts cinema as a global genre. These appealed to a romantic if not atavistic sentiment of their time, inspiring fantasies of ancient wisdom and personal discipline overcoming oppressive technological modernity. Archetypally speaking, there's not much difference between a ninja -- a good ninja, I mean -- and an Ewok. So by the end of the Seventies we had Eric von Lustbader's novels, Frank Miller's comics, The Octagon, and finally Enter the Ninja, a film that bestrides two eras. It looks forward to the Eighties as the work of two of that decade's defining genre producers, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and an early showcase for the movie ninja of the decade, Sho Kosugi. But it looks to the past in its casting of Franco Nero as its hero. The implausibility of casting has never stopped Nero. If he can be a western gunslinger and a singing knight of Camelot, he can damn well be a ninja.

I'm told that there are versions of Menahem Golan's film in which Nero, as he reportedly prefers, speaks his own English dialogue, but Netflix isn't streaming that version. If anything, the superimposition of an alien voice only exacerbates what I see as Nero's visible discomfort with the project. Nevertheless, he plays Cole, whom we learn was once a mercenary fighting wars in Africa -- virtually a modern ninja already -- who for reasons never made clear quit the business in order to learn, in Japan, how to be a traditional ninja. The film opens with his final exam. Cole's white-clad bulk crashes through the woods, slaughtering all in his path, until he confronts and decapitates an old master. The master, head attached, promptly reappears for the graduation ceremony. All the mayhem and gore we'd seen were fake, the master's erstwhile head merely papier-mache. Cole has to recite the nine principles of ninjistu in order to graduate and nails them. But bigoted Hasegawa (Kusugi) protests that no foreigner can be a true ninja. Fortunately, his opinion counts for crap with the sensei and Cole is sent out into the world to follow the ninja way of helping the helpless and oppressed. But how will his bleeding-heart-liberal ninjitsu stand up to the rage of raw capitalism?

Cole heads to the Philippines, where his old mercenary pal Frank Landers -- Alex Courtney plays him like a hastily drawn and drunken-voiced cartoon of James Caan -- runs a plantation with his English wife Mary Ann (Susan George). Nero may as well be back in the Old West. Here, as there, an evil financier (Christopher George, no relation to Susan) covets the good people's land. The sinister Mr. Venarius, who keeps synchronized swimmers in his deluxe pool as a "living mobile," has sent a goon squad to the outskirts of Manila to drive the Landers' workers off the farm and the Landers off their land. The goon squad is led by Siegfried Schultz (Zachi Noy), a Teutonic leperchaun with a hook hand who is duly humiliated when Cole defends his friends. Our hero rips Schultzie's hook clean off, which helps convince Venarius that he needs a better class of goon. After Cole and another new buddy, the transplanted old codger "Dollars" (Will Hare) ruin Venarius's attempt to negotiate a sale at gunpoint, our villain learns that the Landers' protector is a ninja. "I want a ninja!" he demands -- I paraphrase -- "I want a ninja now!"

The forces of evil converge ...

Venarius's faithful flunky Mr. Carter (Constantine Gregory) dutifully flies to Tokyo and does what anyone would do to find a ninja: he goes to a talent agency. Miraculously, Carter ends up at Cole's old school, where he explains to the sensei, without naming names, that a bad man is terrorizing Mr. Venarius's business concerns. This looks like a job for Hasegawa, whose idea of defending the oppressed includes slitting Frank Landers' throat, kidnapping Mary Ann, burning down the farmhouses and cackling evilly. I'm not sure sensei would approve, and I know Cole doesn't. He happened to be out on a lark with Dollars, raiding Venarius's corporate headquarters and leaving his guards in compromising positions, as all this went down, receiving only Hasegawa's selfie film of a recent kill as a warning of what's to come.

Above, Mr. Carter's, "I think I've been hurt, sir," is my favorite line of the film.
Below: Senator McCain, this is human cockfighting.

To save Mary Ann, Cole must face another gang of useless guards and eliminate Venarius himself before confronting Hasegawa in a cockfighting arena. You might think that since Nero's ninja costume makes it very easy for a stuntman to replace him in all but the close-ups that this formal finale would be a truly climactic battle, but you'd be wrong. Kosugi and his stunt-opponent may be talented, but the fight choreography and direction lumber along as if Nero himself were fighting in his big white jammies. It doesn't help that our good ninja suddenly starts fighting dirty, blowing chalk into poor Hasegawa's face to get an early advantage. But I guess a ninja's gotta do what a ninja's gotta do, especially when the woman he now loves -- Frank having disqualified himself before death by drinking himself into impotence, and Mary Ann having seduced Cole in his guest room -- is in danger. After one of the clumsiest finishes to a swordfight I've seen, good triumphs, while Hasegawa gets the consolation prize of a genuine decapitation. But it was Sho Kosugi who'd live to fight another day, and another, and plenty more after that for Golan-Globus and others. while Nero never made another martial arts movie. That leaves Enter the Ninja looking like a rough draft of ninja films to come, but as the wellspring from which they flowed it still has a lot to answer for.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Orginally martial artist Mike Stone was the star. But the footage was so bad, that Golan fired him. Nero was in Manila at the time for a film festival. Golan saw him at a resturant and approached him and offered him the role and the rest is history.